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The debate over flood protection

April 8, 2013
By Sam Shawver ( , The Marietta Times

Preventing floods in Marietta was no doubt a subject of debate long before the great flood of 1913 left 66 percent of the city underwater. While some ideas for flood mitigation have come to fruition, others have not.

One unpopular proposal that resurfaces every few years is the construction of flood walls to protect the city along the Ohio and Muskingum rivers.

Marietta City Councilman Harley Noland said the Pioneer City has resisted the idea of building a flood wall, unlike cities downriver such as Parkersburg and Portsmouth.

Article Photos

Times file photo
Unobscured by massive flood walls that have been erected to protect other river cities, Marietta’s waterfront remains open to the Ohio River where crowds continue to gather for events like the annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival.

"And look at how our downtown (has) stayed vital compared to those other two cities," he said. "Yes, we may get flooded sometimes, but we love our view of the rivers and our relationship with the rivers."

In 2007 Marietta was chosen for a pilot flood mitigation program that brought city officials together with representatives from agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District and others to consider ways to minimize flood damage to the community.

A flood wall was among the recommendations that came out of those flood mitigation sessions from the corps of engineers, which estimated a 4-foot-high wall to protect the city's east side would cost around $74 million, and a second wall around the west side would have an additional price tag of $85 million.

Fact Box

Some flood protection ideas considered for Marietta since 2007:

Portadam portable floodwalls in 25-, 50- and 100-foot sections that could be linked together and retain up to 12 feet of open water. Cost $100 to $125 per lineal foot. Demonstrated in 2007 but never purchased by the city.

Four-foot-high flood wall along the Ohio and Muskingum rivers to protect city's east side. Estimated cost $74 million. A similar wall to protect the west side area would cost $85 million. Rejected by city officials due to high cost and citizen concerns that a wall would limit access to the rivers.

Duckbill backflow prevention valves on stormwater outflows to prevent rising river water from backing up into city storm sewers, causing flooding in low-lying areas of the city. Seven valves were installed in 2009 at a cost of $230,000.

Early warning stream gauge system for impending floods. High-tech gauges were installed on Duck Creek at Whipple, Harrietsville and Macksburg at a cost of $200,000. Gauges also installed on the Ohio River at Sardis, and on the Muskingum River at Beverly. Cost $540,000.

Source: Times research

Needless to say, the suggestion was rejected.

"There were two primary reasons, and one was the cost projection," said city councilman Michael Mullen, I-at large, who served as mayor from 2005 through 2011.

"At the time we were in the middle of a national recession, and the city's coffers were very tight," he said. "The second concern was the impact on aesthetics of walling off the view of our rivers for folks who had no issue with flooding for 360 days out of the year."

Another idea for flood mitigation centered on portable flood walls that could be inflated or erected in a reasonably short period of time to help prevent damage to buildings and property in flood-prone areas of the city.

At least two companies demonstrated their portable flood walls along the Ohio River waterfront in 2007, but city officials were not sold on the viability of such devices during an actual flood event.

But the flood mitigation sessions did produce some usable ideas, including the installation of seven duckbill backflow prevention valves on city stormwater outfalls along the Ohio and Muskingum rivers.

The valves were designed to prevent rising river water from backing into the city's stormwater system and causing flooding in lower-lying areas of town.

Although the river flood stage in Marietta is 36 feet, flooding was occurring in some areas when the river rose to only 30 feet, according to Mullen.

"That was a very cost-effective project-100 percent grant-funded, although we did have to kick in some dollars as there were some costs that went over the grant threshold," he said. "But that project has benefited areas like Pike Street and has prevented Goose Run from flooding due to backed up river water traveling through the stormwater system."

Perhaps the most effective result of the flood mitigation efforts has been the development of a flood warning system that relies on high-tech stream gauges placed along Duck Creek in Washington and Noble counties, and on the Ohio and Muskingum rivers upstream from Marietta.

The U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges provide real time data on current stream and river conditions that is available online for the general public as well as for meteorologists and USGS personnel to use in their flood forecasting and flood warning processes.

The gauge data is also available to help emergency management officials make better informed decisions about the likelihood of flooding and whether to initiate emergency preparations.

Marietta city engineer Joe Tucker recently noted that the stream gauge data could also be linked to a call-down system that would alert residents and business owners via cell phones and other mobile devices if flooding may occur on their properties.

The newest wrinkle related to the stream gauges are USGS flood inundation maps, currently available for Findlay, Killbuck, and Ottawa, Ohio.

New USGS flood inundation maps are also being developed for Marietta, Beverly, McConnelsville and multiple sites in Licking County, Ohio.

These maps show where flooding would occur at various high river levels, and are connected to the real-time river levels being monitored by the USGS stream gauges.

"The 1913 statewide flood is Ohio's 'Greatest Natural Disaster.' Since then, the number of USGS stream gauges increased from one to about 230 currently operating in Ohio," said Scott Jackson, USGS Ohio Water Science Center deputy director.

"Today, the USGS and its partners maintain about 8,000 stream gauges nationwide," he said.

The USGS WaterAlert ( service allows subscribers to receive daily or hourly updates about current conditions in rivers, lakes, and groundwater.



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